Mikey Lebrett
Mikey Lebrett

The challenge of empathy – celebrities, slums and tzedaka

In a world steeped in celebrity culture and modern-day hero worship, meeting a star in the flesh can be unsettling. People breathlessly retell of their emotions during the encounter: an excited buzz of recognition, that slight self-conscious nervousness, the rush of satisfaction when they manage to get that precious, sought-after selfie. But invariably, a much subtler feeling simmers beneath the surface. An unnerving sense of a person who had only occupied the pixels of the television screen or the ink of the newspaper print entering real life, materialising as flesh and blood in front of one’s eyes. Experiencing the virtual become the physical. The distant become the close. The irrelevant become the relevant. It’s almost impossible to convey that feeling to someone else, and to be honest, it’s not particularly important.

However, sometimes, sharing this shift in perspective with others is crucially important.

In December, the Chief Rabbi of the UK sent 16 university students to India on the inaugural Ben Azzai Programme. With the expert guidance of Tzedek, Olam and JDC, our mission was to see and comprehend the crippling poverty which affects billions of people around the world every day, to understand what can, and is, being done to help improve people’s lives, and to inculcate a deep personal value for these activities into our Orthodox worldview.

After returning, the challenge of conveying everything we had seen and learnt became exceedingly daunting. I too have grown up in a culture saturated with adverts, pictures and billboards asking for a few pounds to help a nameless, soulless poor person survive. I too have been desensitised by the sheer volume of campaigns, fundraisers and dinners all trying to level that critical emotional knockout blow, trying to extract those precious tears and chequebooks in one fell swoop. We are trained to block out the uncomfortable.

What I experienced in India made the previously irrelevant, virtual and distant become shockingly real.

It wasn’t so much seeing that poverty exists. I know it exists and so do you. You can watch documentaries about it, browse pictures on the Oxfam website, or read UN statistics until you know the figures by heart. It was the realisation that real people are living in indescribable squalor. People who laugh and cry just like us. People with hopes and dreams just like us. Kids who play just like ours, except their playgrounds are furnished with mounds of rubbish, pigs, and excrement.

Kalwa Slum
Mumbai’s Kalwa Slum

We met a lady in a tiny countryside hamlet, surrounded by rice paddies and rolling hills, the envy of postcards the world over. She told us about her life, the worries she has for her kids, the home she manages, the job she holds down. Exactly like any middle age mother anywhere else. Except she has some concerns we aren’t so accustomed to. Her husband is forced to migrate to the slums for half of the year when the money from the rice harvest dries up. Once the village runs out of vegetable and spices, she feeds her children plain white rice for weeks or months on end. The nearest hospital is hours away, the nearest university days away.

Ashte Village
Ashte Village

There are philosophers who argue that charity should not be an emotional activity. It should be a cold calculation of where your pound or dollar will make the most impact. There are ethicists who claim that giving money to those that you care about is tantamount to discrimination, favouring those you identify with at the expense of those who need your help more.  Whilst it is certainly true that the impact of one’s donation must be carefully considered before it is given, the intimate links between compassion, human nature and charity should not be written off. To assist someone out of a feeling of genuine care for the person is a beautiful display of human empathy and morality. It is what raises us from the realm of accountants into the realm of humans.

In contrast to this, there are people who cannot see past the great challenges present amongst our own community, and thinking about the needs of those further afield is simply off the radar. The overwhelming feeling of compassion for those who are close eclipses not only the feeling of responsibility to assist those who are far, but also the very recognition that those outside of the community are real people actually struggling. We certainly shouldn’t seek to limit the compassion we feel for those whose lives are intertwined with ours, the question is, how far could our circle of empathy stretch if we allowed it to? What really separates the suffering of my neighbour from the suffering of someone I have never met?

In India, we saw the incredible work Gabriel Project Mumbai is doing every day. Founded by Jacob Sztokman, a resolutely unassuming Israeli Jew who couldn’t stand idly by after seeing the poverty in the slums, this charity educates, feeds and trains dozens of children and adults in both the slums and the rural villages around Mumbai.

Ben Azzai participants at the GPM school in Kalwa Slum
Ben Azzai participants at the GPM school in Kalwa Slum. Credit: Bombay Arthouse

GPM delicately navigates the complexity of international development, liaising with the local communities to see what they require before founding schools, health clinics and paper and soap recycling projects, all staffed and run primarily by local people (with the assistance of international volunteers and the local Jewish community). They do this with a deep and tangible sense of love and care for the people they are helping, never allowing the scale of the work to transform the people they are helping into statistics. They are truly changing lives for the better.

GPM founder Jacob Sztokman and Ben Azzai participants talking to local teachers at the GPM nursery in Ashte Village. Credit: Bombay Arthouse
GPM founder Jacob Sztokman and Ben Azzai participants talking to local teachers at the GPM nursery in Ashte Village. Credit: Bombay Arthouse

In the three months since returning from India, I have had dozens of conversations and debates with people about theories of international development, the Jewish perspective on priorities in charity, and the philosophy of altruism. These are important and complicated topics, often without conclusive answers. However, a prerequisite to these deliberations must be the realisation that we are discussing real people. Not just pixels on a television or ink in a newspaper. Real people like you and me, with hopes and dreams, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. As soon as it becomes a discussion about us and them, we are at risk of losing the sensitivity and compassion which define us as human.

About the Author
Mikey Lebrett currently lives in Manchester with his wife and son and studied for two years at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavne, Israel. He completed a degree in Pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London and is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester. Mikey is heavily involved in Jewish communal life, and has considerable experience in Jewish Informal Education.
Related Topics
Related Posts